Mikomi's enemies quickly multiply as a plot far more devious in nature is unearthed. Though Musubi works to prepare her for the many dangers she must face, remaining within the palace walls may no longer be an option. She must protect herself against nekomata disguised as normal humans, while a far greater threat lurks within the heart of a man who she loves and trusts.
My assailant took full advantage of my distracted state by coming from behind, snaking his arm over my shoulder and covering my mouth with his hand while wrapping his other arm around my waist, lifting me from my feet and dragging me kicking and flailing backward toward a denser area of the forest.
We reached the edge of a grouping of trees, but instead of entering, my captor lowered me to the ground and spun me to face him.
I let out a frightened scream before I recognized Musubi wearing the most infuriating smile on his all too handsome face.
“Why you…you…” My fists flew as I began beating against his chest, punishing him for scaring me near to fainting.
He merely chuckled, as if my fists were about as effective as a small swarm of pesky gnats. He grabbed each of my wrists in his hands.
“Calm down, Mikomi.”
“Calm down? Do you have any idea how badly you frightened me? I thought you were one of the emperor’s guards or a thief…or worse.”
He didn’t appear at all contrite, more satisfied than anything else.
“And when you assumed the worst, did you employ any of the basic defensive techniques you learned over the last few weeks?”
I raised my eyebrows at this. Heat infused my cheeks.
“Your mind became blank and you forgot everything. Correct?”
I nodded, cursing myself for my own stupidity.
“If anyone else had attacked, you would already be dead, Mikomi.” He let go of my wrists, fisting his own at his side. “You would be dead. Am I getting through to you yet? Do you understand the gravity of your current predicament, what you have agreed to be a part of?”
I sighed. “We’ve been over this before. I am aware of the danger I face. I know the risks by heart now.”
“And yet you still have no intention of disassociating yourself with the rebels, do you? Even after I’ve demonstrated to you how fast it can happen, how quickly everything can change? Do you understand how easy it is to lose control of a situation, to lose your life in the process?”
“If anything you’ve done a masterful job of showing me my weaknesses. It is obvious I could use more training in this department.”
Musubi rubbed a hand over his tired face in a frustrated attempt to hold back a few expletives that still managed to come through.
“Mikomi, don’t you understand? Soldiers train from the time they are children, and they continue their training long into adulthood. You will never be an accomplished fighter in time for what is coming.”
“I’m learning much faster than most. You yourself said so.”
“By normal standards, yes. You are fine tuning your technique leaps and bounds ahead of most pupils I’ve trained, but for our timeline and our initial purpose it simply isn’t fast enough. You will never be ready to defend yourself against the emperor’s soldiers. Not in time for what we have planned.”
His words echoed that of Daikie’s and Hatsumi’s. It proved more irritating than discouraging. I wasn’t interested in crying defeat.
“You knew this before you started training me. I train and learn as much as possible, but you will be by my side as my main protector. Nothing has changed.”
“Everything has changed,” he stated. He cupped my face in his hands and leaned his head close to me. “Everything. You aren’t simply a woman of medicine any longer, nor are you just a pupil, Mikomi. I…you have become family for Akane and myself, though her faith in you exceeds that which is prudent or even logical. I don’t know why she thinks you are our only chance for success in this endeavor, but I cannot bear the worry I experience between our sessions, waiting to see you again, praying you are still breathing, still speaking...still alive enough respond to all of my teasing with your subtle rebelliousness and spirit.” He rubbed a thumb along my jawline while I did my best to process this unexpectedly emotional outburst. “It is time we put this foolishness behind us. I want you to leave this place, Mikomi. I will take you to a new location, someplace where I know you’ll be safe.”
My hopes plummeted, as if I had been soaring free of any and all restraints only to fall to my death. He didn’t want me here any longer. He believed me too weak to see this through.
I eased away from him, and my heart rebelled at the self-imposed distance. “You wish me to leave?”
“It is the only way to keep you safe.”
“I gather Akane has no knowledge of this.”
“And why should she?” He nearly exploded. He raked his fingers through his light hair and began to pace much the same way I did whenever a problem became too much to simply riddle out in a normal fashion. “She is the one encouraging this, allowing you to put yourself in danger. For what? A location? A shipment of gold? What if you are caught, Mikomi? I will not be there to protect you.”
“I do this for a far greater goal in mind and you know it. The fate of the Kagami empire is hardly a trivial matter.”
“Semantics,” he muttered.
My stiff shoulders relaxed ever so slightly as I now understood the catalyst for Musubi’s uncharacteristic behavior.
After months of his standoffish demeanor and inaccessible emotions, I was grateful that the idea of my impending death managed to spark some life into him and encourage him to behave like a human being instead of a stiff statue. It didn’t say much for his faith in my abilities, but progress is progress.
“And your plan is to simply drop me off at the next widow’s house much the same way you dropped off Akane? You do realize I am not in need of parenting, correct? I’m a grown woman, and I can make these decisions for myself.”
“One cannot help but notice that you are a woman, Mikomi, but for all intents and purposes, you are my woman, and any husband with half a brain would never place his wife in the kind of danger that I have placed you in.”
My confusion reigned supreme at this point. Our marriage was nothing but a farce, and yet he pulled rank on me as if he had a right to.
“I suppose it is lucky for both of us that these burdens a normal husband carries are merely circumstances we play at, and nothing we take too seriously. Am I right, Musubi?”
I leveled a challenging look at him. If he wanted to discuss what rights he had as my fake husband then it was time for him to have an honest conversation with himself for both our sakes.
His mouth quirked into a sardonic half-smile as he weighed his next words. I didn’t give him time to answer.
“Or would you rather that this farcical arrangement of ours be turned into something more permanent and binding?”
The silence lengthened until he cleared his throat and then clenched his jaw, clearly torn between his desire to take care of me and the vengeful anger that tore him away from any and all thoughts of forever.
“We may not be married in a legal sense, but as your teacher and protector I have every right to decide what is best for you.”
His eyes widened at that, but I was no longer interested in customs or cultural dictates that governed etiquette and social behavior between a man and a woman, much less a teacher with his student. If I was going to rebel against everything I had ever been taught to follow and adhere to, then I was going to rebel in every aspect of my life with every person who dared to take what little independence I had managed to gain throughout this exhausting and draining ordeal.
“Musubi, you seem to be under the impression that as my fake husband you somehow have a stake in my future or control over my actions, and if we were married in a legal sense then I admit I would most likely be forced to acquiesce to your wishes, but I am unfettered by you or any other man dictating my choices much less my life. The only way you’re going to be able to lay claim to those rights is if you take me right now and legally claim me as your own.”
“And if I did that, you would leave here and never return?”
“I would if it meant you left with me.”
“You would marry me and desert me?” I tsked at this, attempting to appeal to his sense of duty. “Doesn’t seem like the honorable thing to do, does it? And who will protect me with you gone fighting a war you have already deemed a lost cause?”
His concern over my well-being and his other inner demons were waging a war so ugly I wasn’t sure I wanted to remain in his presence any longer.
“If you wish to order me about then marry me; otherwise, we’re wasting valuable time.”
The corners of his mouth drew up, a rueful smile giving way to the logic of my little speech.
“It seems to me that any man brave enough to marry you would most likely be the one receiving orders and carrying them out. No doubt the consequences for failure would be brutal.”
“Floggings if I don’t get my way.”
“I suspected as much.”
Now it was my turn to fight off a smile.
“This conversation isn’t over, young lady, but I agree that we need to utilize the rest of our time with more training and less arguing.”
My relief that the discussion was over was overshadowed by his obvious deflection of my brazen proposal. Marriage had been thrown rather indelicately before him, and he hadn’t appeared even remotely interested, not even enough to keep me protected. I wanted independence, and I wanted protection. I wanted Musubi to save me, and I wanted to save myself. Was I strong or weak or simply in love?
It was the only logical conclusion to come to. As if logic and love could ever find a place to harmoniously join together.
I began writing short stories for family and friends when I was thirteen years old. My vivid imagination and love of mysteries and romances eventually led me to following my own dreams of becoming a published author. I also do some book review work on the side for SDE Magazine.
I'm a huge fan of The Mindy Project, Hugh Jackman, and binge eating any and all things chocolate. Who isn't, am I right? As a mother of four awesome kids I'm usually playing beauty salon with my daughters (my four-year-old shaved my arm one time while I was helping another daughter with her homework. Yep. That happened) getting my fanny kicked in Mario Kart by my snarky little son, and making out with my deliciously handsome looking Latin lover, aka, my hubby. (See photo above for visual evidence of such deliciousness)
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